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On May 30, 2024, Donald Trump—the presumptive Republican nominee for president—was found guilty and convicted by a jury of New Yorkers in a trial over his “hush money” payment to an adult film star in 2016. It marks the first time a former president has been convicted of a crime, and will undoubtedly be significant in this year’s election. Here is a breakdown of the facts involved and what it could mean going forward.

The Case

Donald Trump was formally indicted in March of 2023 by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg for thirty-four charges that he had tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by illegally suppressing damaging stories about his personal activities. After a recording was made public of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women by grabbing their genitals, former adult film star Stormy Daniels was going to disclose publicly that she and Trump had had an affair in 2006.

The National Enquirer reportedly told Michael Cohen, a lawyer who worked for Trump, about Daniels’ intentions, and he and Trump decided to purchase the rights to her story in order to prevent it from becoming public (a practice called “catch-and-kill” in tabloid journalism). They arranged to pay $130,000 to Daniels for the story, and Cohen later received a reimbursement payment from Trump’s company for the expense. While it isn’t illegal to make a “hush money” payment, Trump was accused of making specifically false entries in the Trump Organization’s accounts to obscure the true nature of the payments to Daniels and Cohen, thus resulting in the charges of falsifying business records.

The trial heavily focused on the physical evidence of the alleged falsification actions. The evidence included checks and business ledgers logging the payments in question, as well as a handwritten document detailing the structure of the payments to Cohen. Daniels herself testified about her alleged affair with Trump in 2006, and Cohen testified that Trump both knew and approved that Cohen would be repaid under the guise of “legal services” for arranging the payment to Daniels. Cohen had previously been sentenced to prison in 2018 for campaign finance charges and lying to Congress, and his credibility as a witness was raised by Trump’s defense during the trial. But the judge in this case explicitly informed jurors that Trump couldn’t be convicted based only on testimony from Cohen.

The Verdict

After deliberating for two days, on Thursday May 27 the jury of 12 New Yorkers delivered the verdict that Trump was found guilty on all thirty-four counts of falsifying business records. Following the guilty verdict, Trump now faces sentencing, which has been set by Judge Merchan for the date of July 11.

The convictions on counts of business fraud open up the possibility of jail time—four years for each count, but with a maximum of twenty years. But this outcome is far from certain, and many legal analysts think it unlikely he will be incarcerated. Judge Merchan may decide to put Trump on probation rather than in jail, or assign him fines or community service as punishment. Whatever happens in sentencing, Trump is very likely to appeal the decision afterwards, meaning the case may not truly be resolved for a long time to come.

What’s Next

While Trump still faces sentencing for his conviction, the most obvious ramification of this outcome will be for the upcoming presidential election. Most immediately, the guilty verdict and conviction do not mean that Trump is now unable to run for president. There is nothing in the Constitution that bars a felon from running for the office, and Trump is still likely to be nominated by the Republican party at their convention in July.

It remains too early and difficult to reasonably predict how this outcome will impact the election. Trump’s conviction won’t mean much change to Democrats who were already going to vote against him. Recent polling suggests that Trump’s supporters won’t budge much either: one poll found only 4% of his supporters would change their minds about him if he was convicted. Perhaps most notably, in one of the first polls conducted after the conviction, 54% of voters “strongly or somewhat approved” of the guilty verdict, while 49% of independents—along with 15% of Republicans—said they thought he should end his campaign because of it.

Both parties have already begun to leverage the trial and its outcome for their political advantage. Republican officials and leaders—including House Speaker Mike Johnson, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Senator Lindsay Graham, and more—called the process a “shameful day”, a “political exercise,” a “travesty of justice,” and said they expected the case to be overturned on appeal, adding that they expect it will motivate the Republican voters in November. Democrats’ comments highlighted their belief that the conviction demonstrated the strength of the American legal system, that Trump was unfit for the office of president, and that another term of him in office would mean a chaos of false claims and seeking revenge for perceived slights by political foes.

Trump himself helped feed this claim by spending the trial constantly launching criticisms and personal attacks at Cohen, Stormy Daniels, the prosecutor, the judge, and even the judge’s daughter, among others. In line with other Republican leaders, after the verdict was delivered Trump gave a statement full of false claims and mischaracterizations which also blasted the trial as corrupt and part of the “witch-hunt” against him:

  • He claimed to be a political prisoner, even though there was no evidence the proceedings were unfair, he was not held against his will, and he was not mistreated.
  • He claimed the case and trial were instigated by the Biden administration to hurt his political career, even though the DA’s investigation of this matter began in 2018 before Biden was even running for president and there is no evidence the administration was involved in the proceedings
  • He claimed that DA Bragg was backed by George Soros, a liberal-leaning billionaire, even though Soros has never given directly to Bragg’s campaigns

Regardless of how it may impact the future election, Trump’s conviction is a significant moment in America’s political history. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that this was a fraudulent process or outcome: the charges were brought before a grand jury, which decided that a trial was warranted, and the verdict was delivered by a jury that was vetted and approved by both the prosecutors and Trump’s defense team. It is now up to the American voters to make their decision about how this might affect their choice—but they should do so knowing the facts of the matter.

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